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Ending human trafficking requires more politics than persuasion

April 21, 2013

Talk to friends about human trafficking, modern day slavery or abolitionism and you will have their attention; they want to know where victims are found and how they can be helped. Importantly, people are often eager to know how they can help free victims from trafficking situations by taking action ranging from raising awareness to boycotting particular brands.

These reactions are both commendable and understandable. However, while consumer boycotts often focus on sweatshops, factories and farms in far-flung places, trafficking is also happening in UK streets and neighbourhoods. Some 370 cases of trafficking for labour exploitation were referred to the UK Human Trafficking Centre in 2012. Anti-Slavery International estimates that only 10-15% of trafficking cases are picked up by the authorities, making this number even more significant. These cases of severe exploitation are being identified in British industries ranging from agriculture, to care, construction to hospitality. Such exploitation is taking place before our eyes, whilst attention is focussed on similar cases found overseas.

Common human trafficking narratives paint a picture of an impoverished developing country situation, where labour standards are loose and criminal activity is left to thrive. In such conditions weaknesses in supply chains appear and allow labour exploitation to flourish, workers are forced to work long hours without pay and often in dirty and dangerous conditions. However, this narrative is not limited to ‘developing countries’. In the UK, as elsewhere, demands for a high-volume, low cost workforce across a wide range of industries create the risk of forced and exploitative labour. Whilst there is an urgent need for a robust anti-trafficking response to address this real and current problem, the government is steadily dismantling the regulatory structure created to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was established in the wake of the Morecambe Bay tragedy in which 23 Chinese cockle pickers were drowned whilst working in dangerous and exploitative conditions in 2004. It followed extensive industry and political pressure for much greater regulation of gangmasters as low cost labourers arrived in the UK from EU Accession States. The GLA ensures employment agencies, gangmasters or other labour providers who supply workers to five core industries in the UK (agriculture, horticulture, forestry, shellfish gathering and food and drink processing and packaging) are licensed and meet employment standards.

However, last year the government announced that the GLA would have its scope reduced and its licensing process ‘streamlined’. By removing 150 licence holders and the consequent inspections from the scope of the GLA, a saving of £360,000 annually will be made. As the GLA’s scope and powers are watered down, further deregulation is also taking place in government efforts to cut ‘red tape’ from businesses. The Agricultural Wages Board and agricultural minimum wage regime will be abolished, in order to free business from bureaucratic burdens. When concerns were raised about the impact of this move on vulnerable workers in a House of Lords debate, the Government Minister, reassured Peers that the high demand for agricultural workers would create a market force that would ensure such workers are adequately remunerated. He added that the GLA would protect workers at threat of exploitation. However, the demand for labourers does not have a strong track record in provoking employers to offer better conditions, rather to outsource labour recruitment to agencies or gangmasters.

In response to concerns raised in the Houses of Parliament about the impact on workers of reductions to industry regulation, two solutions are offered – crime control and the markets. In the first, the Government refers to the creation of a new National Crime Agency within which the National Human Trafficking Centre will sit, resulting, it believes, in a stronger approach. Yet how such a move will assist a weakened GLA or engage with alternative industry regulators to uncover exploitation is not clear. The second solution lies in industry recognising both the impact of labour exploitation in supply chains on branding and image and that, given high demands for labour, workers won’t stand for exploitation.

Market led solutions now form a central part of the Home Office’s core approach to combating human trafficking. In March, the Home Office launched the ‘Human Trafficking Charter’, a voluntary code of conduct for business. The Minister responsible, Mark Harper MP, spoke of the power of brand image in persuading business that exploitation in the supply chain must be weeded out. A potential problem with this strategy is that, if everyone is engaging in exploitation to varying degrees, the impact on branding or market position of companies becomes insignificant. Furthermore, it relies upon exploitation of workers coming to public attention, in industries that are by nature often remote, secluded, and hidden from public view.

Each month cases of dangerous, dirty and demeaning treatment of workers in UK industry are uncovered. In March, for example, a farmer was found guilty of acting as an unlicensed ‘gangmaster’ and supplying workers to dairy farms often without wages or contracts. Such cases, rather than spurring UK industry into action, have led to a strong warning from a major UK supermarket, that businesses need regulatory assistance to police labour abuses. Sainsbury’s Chief Executive, Justin King said ‘without the intelligence received by the GLA a number of supply chain issues would go undiscovered’. Indeed the GLA was brought in to replace precisely the system the government is now advocating; Britain’s light touch regulatory environment was not proving adequate to address shifting labour market patterns and structures.

The industry driven but consumer supported demand for more produce, increasing choice and ever-lower prices is the impossible dream. Production must be non-stop and low-cost; workers pay the price of their salaries and their health. As with all excesses, one answer is to cut back, consume less and value more and yet few will challenge such core foundations of the modern economy. Instead trust is placed in the market to provide a safety net for the thousands of vulnerable workers in our industries meeting our demands, and where that fails the power of law and order is expected to prevail. But in this system crime pays and virtue offers little reward.

People rightly care about human trafficking and want to do something to end such intolerable exploitation. But ending human trafficking requires more politics than persuasion. Consumers must recognise the impact of their demands on the people who make the products consumed. Industry must admit to the possible weak points in their supply chains and seek help to address these if needed. Critically, Government must ensure a regulatory environment, which roots out exploitation and punishes the perpetrators. Human trafficking is serious and pervasive crime that requires a strong and proactive response to ensure that preventable tragedies such as Morecambe never happen again.